Some Assembly Required

Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on told me that the editor of the newspaper I wanted to employ me wasn’t yet convinced I was the person he was looking for.

So that editor put his finger on it. “I’m still not convinced you’re the person I’m looking for.”

Crap. I may have successfully bluffed my way into an apartment, but my talents were utterly useless when it came to achieving professional-journalist status. New York City had innumerable news outlets on TV, radio, and the Internet, but none of them would look past my empty resume. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t even get newspapers to pay attention to me. I worked my way down from the most respectable to the least respectable, and now I was even lower than that. Luckily, human resources here didn’t have much in the way of standards. Unluckily, the man before me didn’t seem to have much patience for bullshit.

And bullshit was all I had.

“Tell me, Myron,” I started.

“You just met me,” he replied. “You’re not allowed to call me by my first name.”

“Can I call you Chief?”

“No.”

“Name one celebrity who won’t talk to your paper,” I told him, “and I can have an exclusive piece in your inbox by deadline tomorrow evening.”

“Okay, Mister…” He peered skeptically at my resume. “… Max Fuentes. If you can blow my mind with a story about Gerald Davies, you’re hired.”

“You won’t regret it, Chief.”

I know that I regretted it, because there was no way a twenty-four-year-old, wannabe journalist could get access to a mega-super-blockbuster-action star like Gerald Davies. Still, my favorite things to do were things I couldn’t do, so I spent the night and the rest of the next day looking for inspiration in a bottle of cheap scotch and a plastic bag full of weed.

It wasn’t there.

Oh well, there was always blackmail. I opened my laptop, consulted a few search engines, and picked up my cell.

“This is Cheryl,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Hi, Cheryl,” I replied with an exaggerated twang, “this is Maxwell Fox from the Internal Revenue Service; I was hoping to ask you a favor.” Yes, I was aware that impersonating a federal agent is a serious crime.

“You want a favor from me?” Cheryl asked with hesitation.

“Yep!” I whispered conspiratorially, “I wouldn’t ask, but I am in such deep doo-doo.” I laughed, “Sorry about that. I’ve got two little boys, and I think I’ve forgotten how to swear.”

“Tell me about it. My girls have kids of their own, and I still say fudge when I’m really mad. How old are they?”

“Two and four.” I plucked from my memory the names of my nephew and his best friend: “Luke and Cody.”

Cheryl cooed.

“Can you tell me something?” I asked. “When do they stop putting everything in their mouths? There’s always slobber on everything!”

She laughed. “Slobber’s the least of your problems. Wait until they start driving.”

“They grow up too fast.”

“Yes, they do.” She sighed. “What can I do for you today, Mr. Fox?”

“Please,” I insisted, “call me Maxwell.”

“Sure, Maxwell.”

“As I said earlier, I’m in a bit of a pickle. It says here your firm handles the account of a Mr. Gerald Davies? The big movie star?”

“That’s right.”

“Well,” I told her, “we’re looking over some returns–routine government brick-a-brack; you know government.”

“Tell me about it …”

“Well, I was supposed to draw up a little report, and I had all of my information on my little laptop, and it busted. You know computers.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Well, they told me over and over. They said, ‘Maxwell, you better back that file up!’ And I said I would, but I plum forgot! And if I go to my meeting this afternoon and I don’t have that data, well, I don’t have to tell you how much trouble I’d be in.”

“What can I do to help?” she asked, genuine concern in her voice.

“The information I need is in Mr. Davies’s expense accounts for the last fiscal year.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Cheryl,” I pleaded, “they’re going to boil my potatoes. I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t in such a jam!”

She sighed, “Only if you don’t tell anyone about this.”

“Oh, God bless you!” I gave her a private e-mail account I’d set up for such an occasion, and she promised she’d send the information right away.

“Anytime, sweetheart!” Just before she hung up, she added, “You just be sure to give little Cody and little Luke a hug for me!”

“Sure thing!” I settled back in my desk, gulping down a mouthful of cold coffee to wash out the taste of Midwestern colloquialisms. A few minutes later, Cheryl came through, and I had in my hands every cent that passed through Gerald Davies’s hands last year.

More importantly, I had in my hands my new job.

I made a couple of similarly dishonest phone calls and found the number of his publicist.

“Mark Ryan,” the publicist answered.

“My name is Max Fuentes,” I told him. “I’m an unemployed journalist, and I’m trying to exploit your client, Gerald Davies, to get a job. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask him a few questions.”

I could almost hear him blink in surprise from the other end of the line. “What?”

“Hold on,” I said, “I’m nervous. That came out totally wrong. What I meant to say, Mark, was, what can you tell me about the Loving Spoonful, located on 103rd Street and Amsterdam?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied after a long pause that indicated he knew exactly what I was talking about.

“Not ringing any bells?” I insisted. “How about the one on Franklin? Or the one on Avenue C? How about Forty-ninth and Ninth?”

“What do you want?”

“What I want is to understand why a multi-millionaire would spend 35 percent of his net income to open up a chain of soup kitchens and then cover his tracks so thoroughly.”

He sighed. “His pastor told him that charity doesn’t count if he brags about it. It’s that simple.”

“How does this sound?” I asked. “Banner headline: ‘Action star fights homelessness!’ Subhead: ‘Davies defeats …’ Oh, hell, what’s another word for poverty that starts with D?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Never mind,” I told him. “The copyeditors write the headlines anyway. They’re really good at that alliteration bullshit.”

“Your point, Mr. Fuentes?”

“Let me break this down for you, Mark,” I said. “I am going to write an expose of your boss’s extracurricular activities, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. In fact, you guys come across better if you give my staff a ‘no comment.’ Hell, I’ll save you the trouble and take that down right now.”

“Then why the song and dance?”

“Simple,” I replied. “In exchange for all this free character-building publicity I’m about to rain down on Mr. Davies, all I ask is that you reconsider your relationship with me and the paper that’s about to hire me.”

After a moment of silence, he grunted, “Fine.”

I grinned. “Pleasure working with you, Mark.”

Forty-five minutes later, my phone went off. Before I could even speak into it, Myron Fogle’s voice barked at me. “This e-mail you sent me; is this for real?”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

“I just met you.”

“Give it time, then.”

“I want to see you in my office tomorrow,” he said. “Bring a passport or two forms of ID.”

“Thanks, Chief!”

Just before I hung up, he added, “And don’t call me Chief ever again,” he said.


… And now…

Landlord and Savior

Does the cliché “diamond in the rough” have an opposite? If it does, it would describe the living room in which I sat. Outside, meticulously maintained brownstones walled off the neighborhood from the rest of Brooklyn. Birds sang, squirrels scurried, and young, white people walked large dogs and larger strollers up and down bright sidewalks.

Yet this apartment rotted like a cavity within an otherwise healthy set of teeth.

But hey: rent-control.

“Why are you looking at this place?” asked Pat, whose name was on the lease. “You could probably afford something in Manhattan.”

That was a good question, but it wasn’t addressed at me. Pat had double-booked this morning’s interview for the roommate share, which would have been awkward had my current hangover not made me too sluggish to give a damn. I should have given several, considering the competition.

The soft-spoken vice president of a prestigious insurance firm sitting next to me replied with a cocky grin, “You know why divorce costs so much?”

“Nope,” Pat replied.

“Because it’s worth it.”

“No frickin’ kidding,” Pat chuckled. “Want to see the room?”

Mr. Right nodded. I stood up in agreement, mostly because I was on the verge of dozing off.

Pat led the way down a short hallway, opened a door, and gestured. The first thing I noticed when I peeked inside was the soon-to-be-former tenant piled up in the fetal position inside of a sleeping bag. He groaned and waved his hand just a little.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m Max.”

He grunted.

“Raymond,” said my rival.

The tenant grunted.

“That’s Sergio,” Pat told me. “He’s moving out later.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Sergio,” I said.

Sergio grunted.

As we headed back to the living room, Pat asked, “And what do you do for a living, Max?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“I see,” said Pat.

I may have been only twenty-three and fresh out of school, but I’d heard that phrase spoken with that tone enough times to know exactly he meant. I couldn’t afford to scratch this apartment off my list, because it was the last item on it. The good news is, I had no objection to cheating. The better news sat on the bookshelf beside me.

“The Rise of the Son” was a fictional account of the End Times, written by a convicted tax-evader, noted serial adulterer, and beloved pastor named Jimmy Prewitt. A few years ago, while deep in an ironic phase, I’d picked up a copy, because I thought it would be hilarious. It turned out to be spiteful and self-righteous. Right now, it was my salvation. Pointing, I squealed, “I love that book!”

“Really?” Pat grinned. “I’ve never met anyone who’s even heard of it.”

“Well,” I replied, “you know how the media is when it comes to Jesus.”

“No frickin’ kidding.” He shook his head. “What’s your favorite part?”

“That the Surgeon General turned out to be the real False Prophet. I didn’t see that coming.” I jerked my head toward Raymond with a convincing gasp. “Oh no! I probably spoiled it for you!”

“I wasn’t planning on reading it anyway.”

“I see,” said Pat.

I tried not to smirk.

A few minutes later, Pat escorted us to the door, but signaled for me to hang back. Just as Raymond stepped outside, though, a pair of EMTs shoved their way in. They charged past us a few moments later carrying Sergio, still curled up in the fetal position in his sleeping bag.

Pat didn’t blink. He whispered to me, “When can you move in?”

“Um,” I replied.

… And now…

Waking Dream

previously…

The mornings were always the hardest. Everyday he had to ask himself why he needed to continue living. He was never sure what the correct answer might be, and so he promised himself he’d figure it out later on. But everyday he rolled onto the floor, put on some pants, generated some coffee, ignited a cigarette, consumed the coffee, and determined the class to which he would devote his attention today, and gradually he’d forget the question entirely.

Some days, though, didn’t fit into this otherwise ironclad routine. This was one of them. Slowly he drifted to partial consciousness, and as soon as he realized that the pillow pressing against his skull wasn’t his own, he woke the rest of the way up.

Oh. Right.

So instead of clothing, coffee, cigarette, and class, he was reduced to deciding whether he should wake the woman beside him on the full-sized bed.

Lying facedown, her slightly matted, blond–but not naturally so, as he found out recently–hair splashed across her shoulders, a heavy snore rattling out of her nose, she still looked like your typical college sex kitten. Sean smiled.

When they’d arrived at her apartment last night, they skipped the pretense of a cup of coffee or small talk, and instead headed directly for the bedroom. She shrugged off her February coat, tied her scarf on the doorknob to let her boyfriend know she had company, and giggled, “Lose the sweater, or you’re sleeping on the couch.”

Sean didn’t want to sleep on the couch, so he tossed his once-white-but-now-more-of-a-brown, stretched-out cardigan to the floor. It occurred to him that the thorough examination her eyes performed on his body might be due to the fact that she’d never actually seen him without it before. He felt kind of naked now, and he still had a lot of layers to go.

Blushing, she asked, “Is this really crazy, or is it just me?”

It wasn’t just her. “Perhaps you’d feel more comfortable if we simply retired to our corners for the night.”

Shannon bit her lip in thought before crossing her arms in front of her and whipping her T-shirt over her head. “It’s Valentine’s Day,” she replied, “and if I don’t romp with someone tonight, I will not be happy.” She began to pace deliberately, like a cat about to rub up against him. “And you like it when I’m happy, right?”

Most men who were knew her were endlessly fascinated by her cleavage. She accommodated them by making it highly visible, regardless of the weather. A part of Sean wondered how wearing a push-up bra at least three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year could possibly be comfortable, but the other part was just grateful. Given the snug fit of her blouses, he didn’t expect to be surprised by what he’d see when he was finished blinking. His imagination had always been able to speculate how her bare skin might curve and glow and tease, and it turned out that his imagination had done a pretty good job. It even got the goose bumps right. But it hadn’t counted on her bra, though, which wasn’t lacy, or see-through, or even all that interesting. And because of that, it occurred to him that this was really happening.

“Yes,” he replied.

With a grin, she told him, “Okay, now you go.”

Fumbling with the baggy T-shirts he always draped himself in, he asked, “I don’t get why you don’t just fuck Rocky then.”

“You are such a weirdo, you know that?” Balancing herself carefully, she kicked off her fashionable boots. “I can think of four hundred and thirteen guys off the top of my head who would trade places with you so fast.” She stepped forward, penetrating his comfort zone. “You don’t think I’m a weirdo, do you?”

Flailing and backing away, he attempted to reply, “I…” He lost his balance and fell onto the bed. “I don’t often find myself in this situation.”

“Really?” This revelation seemed to utterly baffle her, and so she put all of her concentration into sorting it out. Unzipping, dropping, and stepping out of her skirt didn’t seem to require any thought at all. “Because you’re totally rompable.”

“That’s something I don’t hear a lot,” he told her as she crawled onto the mattress next to him.

“Are you sure?”

“I have problems…” His sentence stalled when he realized that she was unbuttoning his pants. He tried again. “I have problems being intimate.”

She stopped mid-zip and frowned. “Who said anything about being intimate?” She turned her attention to untying and yanking off his shoes. “You don’t need to be intimate to have sex! My boyfriend and I are totally intimate, but he’s at the bar tonight, looking for lonely girls to comfort.”

“Ah.”

After yanking off his socks, she added, “And he’s not being intimate with them.”

“Your relationship confounds me,” he told her.

“Well, I’m not confounded.” She freed his pants completely from his legs with a sharp tug, but sacrificed her balance in the process. He leaned over the edge to find her on the floor, laughing uncontrollably. “Never tell anybody about this,” she pleaded.

With a smirk, he hauled her back onto the bed and kissed her, hard.

Her back arched, her hips rose, and her throat moaned. As soon as she could speak again, she sighed, “So I have to be a total doofus to make you brave?”

“You just had to remind me why you’re one of my favorite people in the world,” he replied.

“Because I’m clumsy like a clumsy lizard?”

He shook his head. “That you’re not even remotely the person you look like.” This close to her face, and with this much light, he could make out crow’s feet around her teal eyes, which was odd, considering that she was two years younger than he, and he was only twenty-three. “So who are you?”

“I’m Shannon, weirdo.”

“Seriously, who the hell are you?”

“Shannon Veronica Heidebrect?”

“I mean…” he began.

“No,” she told him. “I am not going to tell you my whole poopy story so you can fall in love with how deep you think I really am.”

“I don’t fall in love that easily.”

“But you fell in love with her.”

He sighed. “That was an accident.”

“You want to talk about the scars on your arms?” she asked. “The ones that don’t look like an accident?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Well, I don’t want to talk about my poop.” Her fingers crept under the elastic of his boxers. “So how about you take these off, and I’ll get a condom, and we can romp.”

He couldn’t argue anymore. “Okay.”

She crawled delightfully toward him. “A lot.”

With a grin, he said, “Don’t you have to remove something to make that work?”

She looked back at her own underwear. “Oops!” she giggled before rolling her eyes innocently. “Um, could you do me a favor and take care of that for me?”

This morning, he had no idea what to expect from tomorrow, or the day after, but today, he had an answer to his daily question. His finger tickled the small of her back, and she squirmed.

“Good morning,” he whispered.

She replied by reaching for his waist and pulling him closer.


… And now…

Drowning

Sean studied his drink carefully. Not a day went by that he didn’t think about his old friend, scotch. They went way back, and it was really too bad things had to go the way they did. He flicked the glass, and a dozen bubbles scurried to the surface of his ginger ale, breaking the spell.

If he could, he’d walk backward, past one hundred and ten weeks of sobriety, and then twenty-something weeks further, until he reached a time when he still enjoyed drinking. While there, he’d order a double and toast tonight, which happened to be the worst Valentine’s Day of his life.

He loved her more than anything. He hated her even more than that.

“Last call,” said Craig the bartender. “Not that it matters to you.”

Sean grunted.

Craig slid a glass over to him. “Here’s your ginger ale, big spender.”

Sean pointed across the room to the bar’s only other occupant, a buxom blonde with a thousand-yard stare. “What’s she drinking?”

“Gold-label tequila,” he replied. “Top shelf. The sipping kind.”

“I always took her for a daiquiri girl; maybe a margarita if she wanted some fire in her water.”

Craig shrugged. “She’s usually a gin and tonic. Must be a special occasion.”

Sean threw a ridiculously large bill onto the counter. “Get me one more of those.”

“Gin and tonic?”

Sean picked up the bill and threw down a different one. “The denomination will go down every time you ask a stupid question.”

“Seriously?”

Sean replaced the bill again.

Without another word, Craig poured a glass of gold-label tequila. Sean replaced the bill on the bar with the one he’d originally left, flashed him an ambiguous smirk, and strolled over to the blonde with the drinks. As he sat next to her, he asked, “Thinking about him?”

She blinked, but didn’t look up. “Thinking about who?”

“Shannon,” he replied, “we both know who I’m talking about.”

“What makes you think you’re talking about the person you think you know I’m thinking about?”

“Same way you know who I’m thinking about.”

She relaxed and turned to him. “Apples.”

He was used to the way her mind careened from topic to topic, like a caffeinated pinball. “Oranges?” he replied.

She slapped his forearm with a weak grin. “No, weirdo; I bet his lips taste like apples. Granny Smith apples.” She sighed. “I hate that he goes home with her every night.”

“I both hate and love that she goes home with him.”

She lifted her fresh glass in a salute. “To unrequititude.”

He saluted back. “So,” he began by way of conversation, “what do you think you’d say to him if he were here and she wasn’t?”

“That’s a good question,” she said, furrowing her brow. “How would I phrase it?” She bit the inside of her cheek in deep concentration for a moment before lunging forward and kissing Sean furiously.

When she pulled away, Sean took a moment to fan himself with a beer coaster.

“Or something like that,” she concluded, averting her eyes with a blush. “So how did that taste?”

“Top-shelf tequila,” he replied.

“If I were her, I mean.”

“Copper.”

“Want to get out of here?” Shannon asked.

“Right behind you,” Sean told her and gulped down the last of his ginger ale, pretending it was scotch.

to be continued…

Haute

previously…

Before this ordinary duplex in the middle of this ordinary town, a bellow rose from the earth, deep and dark as if it had been mined by an army of industrious dwarves. Birds took flight from the surrounding trees as words formed: “Anybody home?”

The most reasonable reaction to this sound would be terror and retreat. However, baking in a cloud of ozone on the roof of this ordinary duplex were a pair who could not be described as reasonable; she knew no fear, and he just didn’t give a damn.

He shouted, “We’re on the roof!”

The bellow replied, “The door’s locked!”

“Please,” he muttered. “As if that would stop that.”

“You’re useless,” she told him with a glare. “Keys!” she announced before flinging them over the edge.

From beneath them came a roar of pain.

“You could have given some kind of warning,” he said. “Or at least aimed.”

Lisa punched Sean in the shoulder.

The building shook as it ascended the stairs, stomped across the threshold of the apartment, and approached the window, blotting out all light from inside. “You guys out there?”

“No,” he replied.

“Sean, is that you?”

“No,” Sean said before she hit him in the shoulder again. “Yes.”

“Cool.” Somehow, it pulled itself through the narrow window without breaking anything. When it was fully outside, the A-frame of the roof bowed, but held. This particular golem was named, appropriately enough, Rocky. “Smoking weed?” Rocky asked.

“No,” Sean replied, “we’re sitting here with bloodshot eyes, heightened appetites, and mellow demeanors, wondering where that smell is coming from.”

Rocky’s eyebrows slid together into a frowning shelf. “You think it might be coming from that pipe in your hand?”

“Care to join us for once?” Sean offered.

“I can’t,” Rocky replied.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I kind of…” Rocky started. “It’s hard to explain.” He tried: “I… change.”

“Into what?” Sean begged.

“Trust him,” Lisa said, “and just let it go.”

“Not now that my curiosity has been piqued!”

Rocky sighed. “Fine.”

She bolted to her feet. “You don’t have to do this, Rocky.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“No you won’t!” she pleaded. “Remember what happened last time?”

“You know Sean,” he told her, “he’s like a Chihuahua.”

“I’m more of a Shih Tzu,” Sean declared.

“He won’t let go until he sees for himself,” Rocky continued.

“While that is a softly blended metaphor,” Sean said, “it is accurate.”

Ignoring him, she asked Rocky, “Are you sure this is okay?”

Sean appeared between them. “Enough with all this foreshadowing!” He handed Rocky the hash pipe and a lighter. “On with it!”

After a few thoughtful, cautious tokes, Rocky sat down and exhaled.

“Well?” Sean whispered to Lisa.

“Wait for it,” she replied.

Rocky jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “Zut alors!”

Startled, Sean lost his balance, but she caught him before he could stumble off the roof.

Tu bien?” Rocky shouted at him.

While Sean gasped for air, she said, “He’ll be fine, Rocky. How are you?”

Comme ci, comme ça.”

Regaining his physical and mental balance, Sean cried out, “What the fart?”

“We warned you,” she said, “he changes when he’s high.”

“Changes into what?”

Je suis français,” Rocky explained.

“What?” Sean took a few deep breaths before asking, “Why?”

Je ne sais pas,” Rocky replied.

“Are you just fucking with me?”

“No,” she lied.

Rocky shrugged. “Ça va.”

Sean retreated through the window, mumbling, “I can’t deal with this.”

Rocky smiled an enormous smile and handed the paraphernalia back to her.

Tu es très haute?” Lisa asked him.

Mais oui,” he replied.


… And now…

Icarus

previously…

“What’s your relation to the patient?” the duty nurse asked her. “Family?”

“No,” she replied.

“Girlfriend?”

Lisa would rather get a pap smear with a rake than date the patient in question. Still, desperate times… “Yes.”

“I see.” The nurse wheeled her chair back to a stack of files on the other side of the desk.

“He wake up yet?”

The nurse glanced at one of the folders. “There’s been no change in his condition.”

So he wouldn’t be much company. There was some good news. “Can I see him?”

“Room 313,” the nurse said before returning to whatever it was that duty nurses did.

She crept down the corridors of the intensive care unit, in no particular hurry to get there. She didn’t know what to expect when she did. It couldn’t be any worse than finding him alone on a bed in a dark room the night before. She was wrong about that; seeing Sean today, alone on a bed in a bright room, was much worse. Instead of shivering and convulsing like he did last night, he now just lay still.

But what really disturbed her was the way he was wrapped in needles and tubes and pale sheets rather than in the droopy cotton sweaters he preferred.

She’d known him for a while, and had no idea he was so tiny. Sure he wasn’t all that tall, but she’d always attributed that to his slouch. Turns out he was just this little skeleton with some skin on it.

He wasn’t going anywhere, so she might as well get some rest. After settling into the visitor’s chair, it took only a moment for her eyes to drift closed. They took less than a moment for them to shoot back open as soon as something she’d seen reached her sleep-deprived brain.

Wide awake now, she hopped to her feet and crept closer to his side. Slowly–oh so very slowly–she rotated his wrist to get a good look underneath. A white, surgically precise scar ran down the length of his forearm. It had completely healed, but still couldn’t be more than a few years old. And it was serious. Whoever made this did not want it to close up.

She sank to the floor. When she’d discovered this drooling mass of sweat and flesh in his dorm last night, she’d just assumed his overdose was accidental. Now she felt really, really stupid. He’d always been the kind of guy who just shuffled his way through life, glassy-eyed and distracted, as if he’d rather be elsewhere; but it wasn’t until just now that she realized that he really did want to be elsewhere.

She’d had to drag herself through years poverty, abuse, illness, and mountains of cruelty to be alive, and yet here he was, surviving a second suicide attempt out of dumb luck. What an asshole!

Behind her, on this bed, without his cigarettes and marijuana and smartass comments and narrow, condescending eyes, he looked just like a little boy. And that’s all he was: a petulant, self-absorbed, frightened little boy. So why the fuck did she even care about him?

She didn’t even like kids, much less this guy. It was only a combination of boredom and curiosity that brought her to him in the first place. If she had any sense whatsoever, she’d get up off of this floor and fly the fuck away while she still had a chance to escape.

But she couldn’t.

After a while, she melted into sleep, waking some time later to a soft voice croaking, “Crap. Not again.”

Embarrassment yanked her to her feet immediately.

He blinked a few times, squinted, and frowned before focusing in on her face. “Shit,” he whispered. “If you’re here, then I must be in hell.”

The only thing keeping her from laughing in relief was the way she collapsed back into the visitor’s chair. Too late now. She was going to burn, and it was her own damned fault.

to be continued…

Coda

previously…

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. She led us down the hall, away from the library’s study room, and whispered, “What’s up?”

“Where have you been?” I asked. “I’ve been calling you all week.”

She sighed.

I was only eighteen, and my experience with breakups was limited. On one hand, I had my one-and-only personal breakup, which had consisted of me walking in on my girlfriend being groped by my oldest friend. On the other hand, I had movies and TV, in which such breakups were merely the prelude to the actual romance. On a third hand, I had the ongoing histrionics of my high-school friends, all of which were pretty stupid, and none of which plumbed the emotional depths I thought I’d had with the girl I’d once loved. The idea of a couple splitting up with minimal drama was one of those things I knew existed but had never witnessed–like a blue whale or a quark.

And yet I recognized that sigh.

“Oh, Bupkis,” she said.

“My name is Max.” If I was correct about where this conversation was going, she had given up all rights to affectionate nicknames.

“Don’t ruin this.”

“Ruin what?” I asked. “You’re the one who’s dumping me.”

She flinched. “Bupkis…”

“Max.”

“I want to remember how much fun we had together,” she replied, “not how it ended.”

“Why does it have to end?”

“For starters, you’re a freshman, and I’m not.”

“So?”

“We have different priorities.”

“I don’t have any priorities.”

“There’s that,” she said. “And the fact that I’m going to grad school next year.”

“We could do long distance.”

“Really?” She closed her eyes. “Are you really thinking that far ahead with someone you’ve only been sleeping with for three weeks.”

“But we’re so good together!”

“Which is why we need to wrap this up,” she told me. “Before it gets complicated.”

“But complicated is good, right?”

She averted her eyes. “Not for me it isn’t.”

“I don’t get you,” I mumbled.

“There’s that too.”

Neither of us looked at each other or said anything for a long time, until she concluded, “Look, I have a final tomorrow. Can we talk about this later?”

“Do you really want to talk about this later?”

She shook her head.

I then uttered what was probably the smartest thing I’d said since the moment I’d walked into the building. “Then don’t worry about it.”

“Thank you.”

My mind, stalled and adrift, ceded control of my body to my feet, which shuffled me through the exit doors of the library and to a bench just outside. The December chill tried to remind me that I’d forgotten my jacket, but I wasn’t paying attention.

If the loss of my high-school sweetheart was the back story to my personal narrative, then what was I to the woman I just walked away from? Just another chapter? Was that what she was to me?

In the midst of this identity crisis, I barely noticed the figure who appeared beside me. “Can I sit here?”

I nodded.

My new neighbor settled down with a peripheral rustle of wool and a whiff of cigarette smoke. “Aren’t you cold?”

I shrugged, turned to the owner of the voice, and blinked at a pair of sharp eyes, a set of smiling lips, and a hint of soft curves that squirmed at the touch of the frozen concrete slab we shared.

You know, you can cram a lot of chapters into a novel.

“Hi,” I said to her. “I’m Max.”


… And now…